Civil War Louisiana (CWLA)

Civil War Louisiana (CWLA)
CWLA seeks to provide an online resource of any and all material of the Civil War relating to Louisiana with a special interest in the war in Acadiana in southwest Louisiana.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Wheat's Battalion

Tiger Rifles painted by Don Troiani
(Courtesy of Historical Art Prints)

Wayne Cosby of the Camp Moore Association has graciously submitted a piece from the Camp Moore Newsletter for us to share. Mrs. Susan Hikida of Carson, California wrote a piece about Wheat's Battalion and Wayne wanted to share it with Louisiana in the Civil War. I quote the article in entirety from the Camp Moore Newsletter. Any "Editor's Notes" are from Wayne Cosby, who edits the newsletter. It is the goal of our website to share and put information out for researching on Louisiana during the Civil War. Thank you Wayne.

The following is an article contributed by Susan Hikida of Carson, CA. She is an avid historian of Wheat's Battalion and we are much indebted to her for her research and sharing it with us.


In January 1861, even as Louisiana debated the question of secession, state troops were seizing U.S. Federal properties in addition to ships that were docked in New Orleans. Commerce in the Crescent City ground to a near standstill, leaving many unemployed. Recruitment among these men was brisk as the city became caught up in the excitement of the coming war.

Camp Walker was created at the racecourse at Metairie for the training of these early recruits. It was here, on May 4, that three companies were organized into the beginnings of a battalion. Included among the companies were Chatham Roberdeau Wheat’s company of ex-patriot Virginians, Robert A. Harris’ veterans of Walker’s filibusters in Nicaragua, and Alexander White’s company recruited among the working classes of New Orleans.

Two more companies were added before the battalion’s officer elections of May 10. “Rob” Wheat was elected major. The captains were Harris for the Walker’s Guard (later designated Co. A), “Alex” White of the Tiger Rifles (Co. B), Henry Clay Gardner of the Delta Rangers (Co. C), Obed P. Miller replacing Wheat in the Old Dominion Guards (Co. D), and Henry Chaffin of the Orleans Claiborne Guards.

The soggy grounds of Camp Walker quickly proved unsuitable for the needs of the volunteers. They were ordered to the newly created Camp Moore in St. Helena Parish to complete organization of their units. On May 16, the day after Wheat’s battalion arrived at Camp Moore, the Tiger Rifles’ Pvt. William Douglas was struck and killed by a train while on guard duty. He became the first man buried in the Camp’s cemetery. The incident was apparently later described to a reporter for the Daily Delta.

He [Major Wheat] gave several illustrations of this virtue of the Tigers. The most recent was that of Bill _____ who had been placed on the railroad track, with positive orders to allow nothing to pass. By and by the locomotive came up. Bill called out ‘halt!’ The locomotive did not heed the order; then Bill fired his musket at the infernal, obstinate old ‘bullgine,’ and seeing it wouldn’t halt, charged bayonets on it, and was run over and mashed into a ‘regular jelly’.”

[Editor's Note: The first grave marker at Camp Moore nearest the monument is to Pvt. William Douglas.]

The drill and other aspect of military camp life continued at Camp Moore throughout the spring. The Daily Picayune noted a parade of Wheat’s Battalion on May 26.

While this city was full of military excitement day before yesterday, Sunday though it was, and our brave citizen soldiery were going to the different churches to hear the last counsels and to receive the latest benedictions of the ministers of our religion, our good fortune, superinduced by a pressing invitation from Major R. C. Wheat, took us in another direction, and that was the delightfully situated Camp Moore, at Tangipahoa

“We had a most hearty welcome from our inviter, who showed us, in a ramble in and out among the streets and by paths of the canvas city, the quarters of the various commands now encamped there. All looked in tip-top order, and appeared to be enjoying themselves greatly. Health prevails in the camp, but two or three, we believe, being in hospital…

“We dined, of course, al fresco, in front of our hospitable entertainer’s quarters, our canopy being only the intertwined branches of trees, ingeniously woven to make for us a grateful shade. An hour or so was very agreeably passed at the table, and then, after a brief siesta, we were summoned to witness a review of Major Wheat’s large battalion, some four or five hundred men, by Gen. Tracy and his staff, in which, by the way, we observed Major Thomas E. Adams, who officiates as the Adjutant of the Brigade. After the review of the battalion was put through a variety of evolutions, which, considering the brief time it has been formed, were very creditably performed. An evening dress parade concluded the interesting ceremonies of the day most satisfactorily…”

On June 6, Wheat’s Battalion, now designated the First Special Battalion Louisiana Volunteer Infantry, was mustered into service with five companies and a total strength of 415. It was around this time that the Battalion gained another company, the Catahoula Guerillas, only to lose the Orleans Claiborne Guards when it was disbanded due to its failure to fill its rolls.


Wheat’s Battalion departed for Virginia by railroad on June 13. The eventful journey took them through Mississippi, Tennessee (where they participated in the tar-and-feathering of an abolitionist in Knoxville), crossing into Virginia at Bristol on the 17th, and stopping at Lynchburg for supplies on the 19th.

The Battalion arrived at Manassas Junction on June 22 where Major Wheat reported to Colonel Philip St. George Cocke. Cocke stationed them at Frying Pan Church under the command of Colonel Nathan G. Evans. They arrived around midnight of June 24 or 25, joining the 4th South Carolina Infantry Regiment and Campbell’s Ranger (Virginia cavalry). Colonel Robert Withers, of the 17th Virginia Infantry noted the condition the Tiger Rifles on their arrival:

Major Robert Wheat reached Manassas in June, commanding a battalion raised in New Orleans, two companies of which were Zouaves who called themselves the ‘Louisiana Tigers.’ These men were a hard lot, and when they reached the camp at Manassas on freight cars was pretty nearly full of men under arrest for disorderly conduct, drunkenness, etc., most of whom were bucked and gagged as some of my men reported who were at the station when they arrived.

The Tiger Rifles promptly saw action on June 28 as part of General William H. T. Walker’s demonstration against Federal troop at Seneca Falls on the Potomac River. They earned the distinction of becoming the first Louisiana infantry to engage the enemy in combat in Virginia. They also hold the distinction of having Louisiana’s first battle casualty in Northern Virginia when Pvt. James Burns received a wound in the leg during the action. The leg was later amputated, but he continued to serve as a driver.

Wheat’s Battalion spent the next two weeks on picket around Fairfax Court House. Many of the men were without blankets or tents, barely fed, and suffering from effect of rain and heat of summer. The Battalion received orders on July 17 to take a position at the Stone Bridge on the Bull Run along with the 4th South Carolina, Campbell’s Ranger, and 2 guns of Latham’s Battery. This was the left flank of the Confederacy’s Army of the Potomac.

On the morning of July 21, the First Battle of Manassas commenced when Federal artillery opened fire over Confederate positions followed by Union infantry advancing against the Stone Bridge. Two companies of the 4th South Carolina and a company of Wheat’s Battalion were ordered forward to prevent their crossing. However, a division of Federal infantry under a Colonel Hunter and two brigades crossed the Bull Run at the bridge at Sudley’s Ford where Federal scouts had earlier seen Major Wheat crossing the stream while on reconnaissance.

At about 8:30, Evans realized that the attack on the bridge as a deception and ordered his remaining infantry to the left to meet the new threat. The 4th South Carolina mistook Wheat’s Battalion for the enemy as they cleared a stand of trees and shot into their ranks. Wheat’s men shot back in response before turning their attentions to the enemy. As Evans recounted the following action:

Placing the Fourth Regiment on the left, supported by one piece of artillery, Major Wheat on the right, supported by a company of cavalry, I directed my command to open fire as soon as the enemy approached within range of muskets. At 9.15 o’clock my command opened a vigorous fire from their position, which caused the enemy to halt in confused order. The fire was warmly kept up until the enemy seemed to fall back. Major Wheat then made a charge with his whole battalion.”

The Union attack was repulsed three times, but Evans was forced to retreat towards Young’s Branch where his command made a stand. Here Wheat’s Battalion fought the New York Fire Zouaves, a battalion of U. S. Marines, and a battery of artillery until reinforcements arrived. Major Wheat received an apparently mortal wound during the struggle. As 1st Ordnance Sergeant Robert Ritchie wrote to a friend:

Our major was shot through the body and carried from the field in a dying condition. Our captain had his horse shot from under him, and we thought he was killed. Our First Lieutenant, gallant old Tom Adrian lay on the ground shot through the thigh and numbers of our men lay around dead and dying. We gained a piece of the woods, and the New York Fire Zouaves, whom we had been fight against, seeing our momentary confusion, gave three cheers; in what was the last cheer many of them ever uttered.”

As later recounted in the New Orleans Daily Crescent:

The Tiger Riles having no bayonets to their Mississippi rifles, threw them away when ordered to charge, and dashed upon the Fire Zouaves with bowie knives.... We covered the ground with their dead and dying, and had driven them beyond their first position, when just then we heard, three cheers for the Tigers, and Louisiana. The struggle was decided. The gallant Seventh had ‘double-quicked’ it for nine miles, and came rushing into the fight. They fired as they came within point blank range, and charged with fixed bayonets. The enemy broke and fled panic stricken, with our men in full pursuit.”

Corporal Samuel English of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry described the aftermath of Young’s Branch:

I then descended the hill to the woods which had been occupied by the rebels at the place where the Elsworth zouaves made their charge; the bodies of the dead and dying were actually three and four deep, while in the woods where the desperate struggle had taken place between the U.S. Marines and the Louisiana zouaves, the tree were spattered with blood and the ground strewn with dead bodies.”

Evans pulled back toward Henry House Hill. With Wheat wounded, the Battalion broke up but continued the fight as companies or as individuals. Confederate reinforcements arrived in a flanking attack and the tide turned against Federal forces. Of the Federal retreat Robert Ritchie wrote:

The enemy fled, throwing down their arms, equipment, clothing, and everything. We followed for several miles, taking a great many prisoners. Tom, it is no use talking, the boys surpassed my expectations; I knew we had good men, but they were more; in their efforts to make victory perch upon our banner, they were superhuman.”

Wheat’s Battalion finished the battle with 8 dead or mortally wounded, 38 wounded (including Major Wheat and 4 other officers), 2 captured or missing, and a stand of captured flags for which they received much praise.


Napier Barlett, Military Record of Louisiana (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1964) 51.

“The Camp at Tangipahoa,” The Daily Picayune (28 May 1861), 2; from a transcription by Ross Brooks.

J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, ed., The Papers of Randolph Abbott Shotwell, vol. 1 (Raleigh, North Carolina: The North Carolina Historical Commission, 1929) 134-135.

James A. Harrold, “Surgeons of the Confederacy,” Confederate Veteran (May 1932) 173.

Alison Moore, He Died Furious (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Ortlieb Press, Inc., 1983); New Orleans Daily Delta, 3 September 1861, quoted on page 81; Robert Ritchie in the New Orleans Daily True Delta, 15 August 1861 quoted on page 62 and 64.

Robert Hunt Rhodes, ed., All For the Union: the Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes (Lincoln, Rhode Island: Andrew Mowbray Incorporated, 1985; reprint ed., New York: Orion Books, 1991) 34.

Richard Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1879) 25.

U. S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861‑1865, Ser. I, vol. 11, pt. 2 (Washington D.C.: Government Publishing Office, 1884) 559.

Robert Enoch Withers, Autobiography of an Octogenarian (Roanoke, Virginia: The Stone Printing & Mfg. Co. Press, 1907) 139.

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Coppens' Zouave Battalion

Coppens' Zouave Battalion
Lt. Colonel George Coppens (seated) and brother, Captain Marie Alfred Coppens.Image sold at auction on Cowan Auctions, for $14,375